Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

22 thoughts on “Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

  1. Yeah, Huckleberry is an old fav of mine and yeah it should have all been about him. I read Tom Sawyer first and loved it but Huckleberry is portrayed as the big beast there and like that I couldn’t wait to read about him but then that was not quite what happened.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting reads, Cath. My grandson likes Caroline and I’m looking forward to reading Twain with him. He just needs a year or two to be ready. Things Fall Apart sounds interesting… one of those books that must be read to be understood/felt. I like books like that, the ones that have an impact as things click. You have me intrigued. 🙂

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    • How lovely, to read the Twain with him. That’s something special to look forward to.
      As to Things Fall Apart, you’re right, I don’t think it’s a book that should be explained too much. It was very much an ‘experience’ for me.

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  3. I love love LOVE the film of Coraline! I know what you mean about the book, though. There’s a few bits where I feel the movie improved upon the story (the Other Mother/rats not looking initially creepy, for instance). I don’t remember digging Huck Finn much, but Bo and Blondie read it together, and they had some really good discussions about it. xxxxxxx

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  4. Not read any of these books. Not sure I will do either. Well done, Cath, completing the challenge. I still have seven to read and I’ve changed a few of them. Can I do it in a fortnight? Maybe the summer will last to the end of September.

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    • Thanks, Lynda. I thought it would clear some space on my shelf, but I’ve such a heap waiting for shelf-space there’s no noticeable difference.
      I’ve one book to go, so I hope to finish on time, but this is the time when I get complacent and let my reading slide…
      Good luck with your seven. I think one or two other people might be extending their finish-line, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a challenge! I too read Tom Sawyer first and perhaps minded less that he turned up again in Finn but remember feeling a bit discombobulated. Recently I twigged that huckleberries are what we call bilberries in the UK. Made me think the boy must have needed to gather them wild. Can’t remember the details of the book! Loved ‘Things Fall Apart’. Although the main character isn’t exactly likeable I felt so much for him as his way of life collapsed and became something else. That became the focus … Haven’t read any Neil Gaiman yet but have followed some radio dramas and enjoyed those so maybe I will give him a try (and see the film). I have a lot of catching up to do with modern culture!

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    • Bilberry Finn… There’s a thought. I think I prefer Huckleberry.
      I’m not sure I’ve read anything else by Neil Gaiman either. His novel Anansi Boys was adapted for Radio, and I’ve just watched Omens and Demons. Though it looks like he’s so prolific I might have read one of his short stories… Keeping up with modern culture seems to be beyond me, so far.


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